In Arab memory, the Nakba is synonymous with occupation, massacres and the displacement of millions of Palestinians from their homes. It is also closely associated with military defeat.
Arabs, however, should also remember the political aspect of Nakba. Before May 15, 1948, Zionist diplomacy was able to garner support for the cause of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine from all corners of the globe. The first result was UN General Assembly Resolution 181 in November 1947. The second, and more crucial, outcome was the recognition of the nascent state of Israel in May 1948 by the world’s two leading superpowers: The Soviet Union and the United States.
Britain, through its Foreign Minister Arthur Balfour, had promised the Jews a homeland in Palestine in 1917. The next year, Edmund Allenby’s troops marched into Jerusalem, marking the beginning of three decades of British rule in Palestine. Britain, as the mandatory power in charge, failed to reconcile its conflicting promises and responsibilities toward the Palestinian Arabs and the waves of incoming Jewish immigrants. By 1948, Britain’s problems in Palestine were compounded by additional droves of Jewish immigrants coming from war-torn Europe. Furthermore, the Jewish agency and its militant wing Haganah, and other Zionist groups, waged a relentless terror campaign against the British in Palestine. The decisive factor in the British decision to transfer the Palestinian question over to the UN, however, was the pro-Zionist position of US President Harry Truman.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the US became the main patron of the Zionist project for Palestine, inheriting Britain’s role. This shift was the most important diplomatic achievement for Zionist diplomacy.
Since 1917, the US State Department had argued that support for the Zionist project would harm US interests. And, when the question resurfaced in the aftermath of the Second World War, then-secretary of state George Marshall favored a neutral American position. The final decision, however, was in the hands of Truman.
The atrocities of the Holocaust led to a dramatic change in the position of Americans. The Zionist movement undertook an intense lobbying effort, injecting the Jewish question into the American electoral game. Truman was concerned about the Jewish vote and was quoted as saying: “I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism; I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents.”
At the White House, two avid lobbyists of the Zionist project, Clark Clifford and David Niles, flanked Truman as his counsels. The US president pressured Britain to lift restrictions on Jewish immigration and land sale to Jews, compounding tensions in Palestine and leaving the British no choice but to move the matter over to the UN. Truman appointed another pro-Zionist, Maj. Gen. John Hilldring, as the head of the US delegation to the UN debate on partition.
Zionist diplomats lobbied intensively for partition at the UN. When they saw they couldn’t get enough votes, they filibustered the meeting, allowing time for more lobbying. Resolution 181 was eventually passed with 33 votes in favor, 13 against and 10 abstentions. Marshall, however, still saw no workable way to implement partition and suggested a UN trusteeship over Palestine. Truman rejected the proposal. When David Ben Gurion announced the establishment of Israel, Truman made sure the US was the first country to extend de facto recognition to the nascent state. The first de jure (legal) recognition of Israel, however, came three days later from the Soviet Union.
The motives behind Joseph Stalin’s decision to recognize Israel are still discussed. The Soviets rejected Arab arguments that the partition would be a historical injustice, yet Stalin had no ideological affinity to Zionism and was not swayed by any lobbying. With historical hindsight, some argued that he endorsed the birth of Israel in order to create shockwaves in the Arab world that would do away with old pro-West regimes and usher in leftist pro-Soviet forces. A more realistic analysis is that Stalin wanted to curtail British influence. In any case, the Soviet-Zionist honeymoon did not last long, and Moscow became the main supporter of the Arabs in their struggle against Israel.
In the months that followed May 15, 1948, the first Arab-Israeli War raged on as Truman doubled down on his pro-Zionist stance. By the end of the war, the Jews were in control of 78 percent of mandatory Palestine (22 percent more than what was allocated to them in the partition plan). The armistice negotiations following the war did little to reverse the catastrophe (Nakba) that had struck Palestine.
Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics.